Saturday, March 3, 2012

Pasta Sauce - Ragù Style vs. Fresh Sauté

All tomato-based pasta sauces are not the same and today I'd like to talk about the two basic methods of preparing a red pasta sauce. 

I'm sure many of us have fond memories of mom or grandma (Nana) making a big pan of sauce on Sundays, which sometimes was used throughout the week for a wide-range of meals.  My sister and cousins often talk of memories of Grandma Alesiano doing this, which filled the house with a wonderful, stomach-growl-inducing aroma.  My mother and aunts did the same.  This pot of sauce was made with a wide-range of ingredients and simmered on the stove top for hours.  It is often referred to as a ragù or "Sunday Gravy" here in America.  Indeed, when I visited a friend's house "Mamma Scolaro" informed me she had been making the 'gravy' all day long.

Grandma Alesiano (center) with
her daughters (my mother and aunts).
Ragù Style:  The term ragù actually refers to a slow-cooked meat sauce, of which there are also two major varieties.  Neapolitan ragù, as its name indicates, comes from Naples, Italy.  This ragu is made from three main parts: a soffritto (the French term is mirepoix, a combination of celery, onions and carrots), meat, and tomato sauce. It is very similar to the Italian-American "Sunday gravy", the primary difference being the addition of a greater variety of meat in the Italian-American version, most famously meatballs, braciole, sausage, and pork chops. 
Julians "Sunday Gravy"
The other one is the Bolognese ragù (from Bologna).  The major difference between Neapolitan and Bolognese is how the meat is used as well as the amount of tomato in the sauce.  Bolognese version uses very finely chopped meat, while the Neapolitan version uses whole meat chunks, taking it from the casserole when cooked and serving it as a second course or with pasta.  The Neapolitan soffritto also contains much more onion than the Bolognese.
In Naples, white wine is replaced by red wine, butter by lard or olive oil, and lots of basil leaves are used where Bolognese ragù has no or few herbs. In the Neapolitan recipe the content may well be enriched with raisins and pine nuts. Milk or cream is not used in either. Of course in Italy you find numerous varieties of each type.
Rigatoni Bolognese
Salt:  One thing I've noticed about pasta prepared at home is that people don't add nearly enough salt to the water.  A small handful of salt is required to cook a pound of pasta if it is to flavor the noodles appropriately.   
I make a ragù or 'gravy' when I have lots of time available and want a rich, complex sauce that is somewhat heavier than the fresh sautéed version I discuss below.  I often make it with whatever ingredients I have around the house, and in addition to the tomatoes and garlic, often includes mushrooms, olives, ground meat or meat balls, or sausage.  Just prior to the pasta noodles being cooked al dente, I remove them from the water and mix them into a couple cups of the ragù (less any meatballs that may have been cooked in the sauce) in a separate pan.  Here I let the cooking continue for a minute or two to absorb into the noodles, finishing to a proper al dente, and to ensure it will not leak water into the serving dish.
When you are ready to plate the pasta, use long tongs twirl it in the pan, lift it out of the pan and lower it into the bowl(s), then re-twirl.  Then spoon some extra sauce on top of the coated pasta noodles and garnish with grated parmesan cheese and some chopped parsley. 

But this is not the sauce you usually receive in high-quality restaurants or the type you would serve at a more formal dinner party.  This version, and one I  do hope you will try if you have not, is prepared in a sauté pan and takes no more than 20-30 minutes.   The first time I had this was at a hotel where the chef prepared it tableside.  It was so easy and delicious I have had it in my repertoire ever since.


Fresh Sauté:   To make this style, start the pasta water heating and using a 10" or 12" sauté pan or even a chicken frying skillet (with higher sides than a sauté if you are making a larger quantity), heate olive oil and sauté garlic and onions together.  Other ingredients, such as olives or peppers can be added if desired, as I did here.  (If adding meatballs/shrimp, prepare them separately and add just before serving. I quickly sauteed the shrimp in garlic, white wine and butter, then added this juice to the sauce.)  One half-cup of red wine is then added and cooked down for a few minutes.  I then add fresh seeded (or out of season canned) tomatoes, chopped into larger chunks.  I never use tomato sauce for this recipe, as you want it to be more fresh with chunks of tomatoes intact when served.  This creates the foundation for a pasta dinner and can continue to simmer lightly on the stove top while your pasta cooks in salted boiling water.
Cook the pasta until bendable but yet not al dente, about 2-3 minutes less than noted on the package for cooking time.  Add a half cup or so of the salty pasta water to your sauce.   Then increase the heat and simmer until the water and oil emulsify and begin to form a slightly creamy sauce.  You'll be amazed at how the texture changes.  Now add some fresh finely grated cheese.  It doesn't take much but it must be finely grated so it melts easily into the sauce.  I like 2 tablespoons of fresh Pecorino (sometimes called Romano in the USA) or 3 tablespoons of Parmesan. 

Add the noodles to the sauté pan (either moving it with tongs from pot to skillet, or draining it.  If you drain it reserve some of the pasta water in case you need more.)  Gently turn the pasta to coat thoroughly and let it continue to cook until al dente, another 2-3 minutes.  If the sauce is too thick add a bit more pasta water. Too watery; continue to cook for a bit longer. Remember however that the pasta will continue to absorb the liquid and the sauce will thicken after it is removed from the heat, so it should be a bit loose when moved into the serving bowl(s).  Just after removing the pasta from the heat, add 1-2 tablespoons of butter, turning to coat.  This will make the sauce even more silky.  In Italian it's called mantecare, 'to make creamy.'   Sprinkle with a bit more freshly grated cheese and serve. You will not find a more flavorful pasta than this! 


While I love and often prepare a long-simmered ragù, this technique is perfect for a weeknight or whenever you don't have the time for the long preparation or when you want a dish that is more fresh in both taste and appearance.

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